Down on the farm, R&D serves as the sharpest spade


This could translate into a €12 million improvement in profitability for the State’s dairy herd, writes ALISON HEALY

How times have changed down on the farm. Thirty years ago, an entire farm family could have spent days filling a pit of silage or fencing a farm. Now machines do that work in the blink of an eye, giving the farmer time to download the latest fertiliser-spreading app or track somatic cell counts before heading to a discussion group to hear about the latest developments in genomics in dairy-cow breeding.

While young farmers once relied on parents and neighbours for their knowledge, now they can pick up tips from farmers hundreds of miles away, thanks to online discussion forums and social-media sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

The motto of today’s progressive farmers seems to be “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”, and their knowledge in areas such as grass growth and breeding in recent decades would baffle their grandparents.

Teagasc, the State research, advisory and education authority, has to be at the forefront of these scientific and technological advances. Its director of knowledge transfer, Dr Tom Kelly, says there is no doubt about the contribution this research is making, not only to farmers’ incomes, but to the economy in terms of driving production.

He says it is critically important for the Government’s Food Harvest 2020 expansion plan that Teagasc focuses on areas where we have a competitive advantage.

While we may wince at the cliche of the Emerald Isle, the quality of Irish grass is one of our major competitive advantages and our farmers are the envy of their counterparts abroad for the length of time they can leave cattle outside, thanks to the nutritional quality of the grass.

Like all State organisations, finding the money to do this research is always a challenge but Teagasc has been steadily increasing its spending on research in recent years. Budget 2013 provided €112 million to the organisation and €64.7 million of that is earmarked for research. This compares with €62.59 million in 2012 and €61.7 million in 2011.

“With ever-reducing staff resources in Teagasc, the major challenge is to prioritise activities and to leverage the help of the resources of the wider agricultural and education professionals who interact with farmers,” Dr Kelly says.

Teagasc uses a network of farms around the State to keep farmers up to date with its findings. Its advisers work with more than 45,000 contracted clients and almost one-quarter are in 700 beef and dairy discussion groups organised by Teagasc.

They meet regularly to discuss efficiency and best practice. Sheep discussion groups are now getting off the ground and will look at areas such as improving lamb output per hectare through higher stocking rates, better grassland, health and breeding.

Years of research at Teagasc’s Moorepark facility in Co Cork has resulted in the dairy economic breeding index (EBI), a profit index for dairy cows. This index looks at factors such as milk production, fertility, calving performance and health, and produces a figure. The higher the cow’s EBI, the higher your profit. Teagasc has found that a farmer with 100 cows who increases the EBI of the herd by €6 per cow could generate €1,200 more profit.

The EBI can be improved by using semen from bulls with a high index or buying in cows with a high index and removing low EBI cows from the herd. Teagasc has worked with organisations such as the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation to encourage the widespread use of this tool.

Teagasc’s head of dairy knowledge transfer Tom O’Dwyer says farmers make decisions regarding bull choice every year and later regret some of them. “After all, if you don’t select the parents wisely, how can you expect the offspring to perform?”

He says the index and the formulas used to predict breeding merit were derived from research and trials at different stocking rates at Moorepark over the last 12 years. “This €6 per cow increase could potentially translate into a €12 million improvement in profitability for the State’s dairy herd if realised.”

Robotic milking Coming to a farm near you

Enjoying a lie-in while the robot milks the cows sounds like every farmer’s fantasy but robotic milking machines are starting to catch on. Teagasc believes up to 20 Irish farmers are now using them and this number is expected to increase when milk quotas are abolished in 2015.

Under the robotic system, cows come in to be milked whenever they want. They stand in their stall and a laser scans the udder before placing the teat cups on the cow. Data is recorded by the robot, which can be accessed by the farmer on a computer or smart phone. But because feed is used to attract the cows into the parlour, researchers have found that cows eat less grass under this system.Grass costs less than feed and produces higher quality milk.

To address this issue, Teagasc’s Moorepark facility is involved in a three-year experiment. It has installed a Fullwood Merlin robot milking unit in its Dairygold research farm in Cork.

Teagasc researchers are also involved in making the most of grass, in a study with Teagasc’s Ballyhaise College in Co Cavan. Tom O’Dwyer says dairy farmers need to start thinking of themselves as being involved in growing grass rather than milking cows. “The cows simply convert the grass to milk.”

The research found that up to 16 tonnes of grass per hectare could be grown with good management – twice what the average dairy farm grows.

“The key is regular grass measurement and budgeting,” he says. “By knowing the production of individual paddocks, decisions can be taken on the optimum time to graze, whether the paddock should be removed as surplus, and reseeding.”

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